An immigrant’s path to success

Review of Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s memoir UNDOCUMENTED: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League (Penguin Press)
The Washington Post. August 7, 2015

What price should a son pay for his mother’s decisions?

In 1989, Maria Elena Peralta, a 29-year-old government worker from the Dominican Republic, flew to New York City with her husband and her 4-year-old son, Dan-el, to seek medical treatment for gestational diabetes. Dan-el was told they wouldn’t be in the United States long, but shortly after his baby brother was born, his mother decided she didn’t want to leave. Her husband pleaded with her to return to the Dominican Republic, but Maria Elena was adamant. “I’m staying right here with [my sons],” she said. “For them and their future.”

Maria Elena overstayed her visa, separated from her husband, signed up for welfare and food stamps, moved her children into a homeless shelter, obtained state-subsidized affordable housing and placed herself and Dan-el in permanent legal limbo. Seventeen years later, Dan-el Padilla Peralta graduated from Princeton University with a degree in classics. His memoir, “Undocumented,” is clearly intended to bolster arguments in favor of undocumented immigrants like himself. But his book provides as much ammunition against them as it does in their support.

Those who speak of “anchor babies” will note that, after her husband flew back to the Dominican Republic, Maria Elena survived for years solely on government resources, to which she was legally entitled because her younger son is a U.S. citizen. “Between WIC and welfer,” Padilla Peralta says, “we ate because of Yando,” his brother. Readers will also note that Maria Elena declined to regularize her immigration status by marrying her long-term boyfriend, whom her sons called “Dad,” until after Yando turned 18 and was no longer eligible for benefits. Padilla Peralta writes that the delay was caused by Maria Elena’s desire for a church wedding. “Her position didn’t make much sense to me,” he writes, “but Mom’s ways were her ways.” No kidding.

Those who speak of undocumented immigrants “draining” limited resources will notice that Padilla Peralta accepted coveted scholarships to the famous all-boys prep school Collegiate and to Princeton, which he attended for merely $2,000 a year. Time and time again, Padilla Peralta contrasts his hardships with the luxuries enjoyed by the Collegiate students around him: SAT tutors, European soccer camps, full-floor apartments, etc. Growing up in Harlem with unreliable electricity, brown tap water and stairwells full of drug addicts, he writes, “I tried my hardest not to think too much about how baller their lives seemed in comparison to mine.” Yet he appears oblivious to the envy that intelligent, cash-strapped, legal residents would have felt looking at the scholarships he used to climb America’s slippery social ladder.

Rarely have I felt so intensely ambivalent while reading a memoir. At times, I battled waves of indignation, exacerbated by Padilla Peralta’s penchant for ad hominem score-settling and his tone of belligerent entitlement. A gem from his closing paragraph: “To the haters, a final word: Demography is a bitch. Holla at me if you want me to break it down for you.” Is such trash talk the best this accomplished scholar could produce?

Yet despite my irritation, I found myself rooting for Padilla Peralta’s legalization. For starters, he was only 4 years old when his mother set his fate. Then, around page 230, another, more self-serving emotion arose when he recalls his urge to move abroad because he can’t legally work in America. “If I didn’t have any realistic opportunities in the States,” he thinks, “why not just bounce?” Staring at that line, I caught myself thinking: We can’t let him get away.

For there’s no denying that, macho bluster aside, Padilla Peralta is exactly the kind of person we want in our country. Brilliant, ambitious, resilient, ferociously hard-working, he embodies classic American virtues. Even at Princeton, he distinguished himself as one of the most gifted, diligent people on campus. The best student in his first-year class. The salutatorian of his graduating class. Phi Beta Kappa.

No wonder Padilla Peralta’s 2006 petition for a legal student visa garnered letters of support from Sens. Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Ted Kennedy and Mark Dayton. It’s not simply a matter of compassion. If you want the United States to succeed as a meritocracy in a competitive global landscape, you have to retain its brightest, most industrious residents, no matter their legal status.

I imagine that Fred Hargadon, who admitted Padilla Peralta to Princeton when he served as its dean of admissions, would have agreed. In a widely circulated 2006 article on the Dominican’s case, he told the Wall Street Journal that Padilla Peralta “could have been from the moon and I would have admitted him.” At 18, he was already that dazzling.

Yet immigration officials declined to rule on Padilla Peralta’s application, provoking him to leave the country for England, before returning two years later on a student visa to complete a PhD in classics at Stanford. Perhaps officials were loath to set a precedent in such a public case, afraid that they might be accused of encouraging undocumented immigration.

Of course, if Maria Elena had come to America in 1889 rather than 1989, their dilemma wouldn’t have existed. Then she would have been accepted without complications, as were almost 12 million immigrants who arrived between 1870 and 1900, most of them entering, as she did, through the “Golden Door” of New York City: the Germans, the Italians, the Irish, the English, the Scandinavians and the Jews. Their grit and brains helped make us a superpower in the decades after they decided to call the United States their home.

Padilla Peralta’s case is messy, but it makes me wonder if such “golden door” policies might not ultimately make us a stronger, more competitive nation.

It Should Have Been a Disaster

David Riker meets with his Latino collaborators while making La Ciudad

David Riker meets with his Latino collaborators while making La Ciudad

When David Riker moved to New York City from England in the early 1990s, he found himself renting an apartment in a neighborhood where everyone spoke Spanish. Riker, who had immigrated to the United States to study at NYU film school, seized the situation for inspiration. “I wanted to make a short film about this feeling that there was another city within the city,” he told me during a recent interview for The Intercept. He thought he’d call his film “The Other City.” There was just one problem: he himself didn’t speak any Spanish. All he knew was a little French.

Undeterred, Riker set about finding collaborators who would share their stories and act in his movie. Spanish, he decided with the nonchalance of youth, was just another skill he’d learn while directing. Oddly enough, his plan worked. “The fact that I didn’t speak Spanish probably allowed people to recognize that we needed each other,” he told me. “That it wasn’t just a one way street where I had all the answers.” Sometimes a child would play translator for him and the actors, sometimes another worker would. The final movie was pretty serious, but making it, Riker recalls, “There was a lot of laughter.”

The experience not only made Riker fluent in street Spanish, it shifted his frame of reference. By the time the shooting wrapped, Riker looked around his barrio and felt convinced that “This is the city. The other city is Wall Street or Madison Avenue.” He changed the title of film to La Ciudad. It was a sensation.

Glamour and Double Talk, or How to Convince Someone that Killing Is Cool

Reading Mona El-Naggar’s and Laurie Goodstein’s terrific coverage in the New York Times of how ISIS attracts new members into its ranks, I was reminded of a similar dynamic at work in Julia Reynold’s astonishing new book, Blood in the Fields, which I reviewed for the winter issue of ReVista. Reynolds focuses on a bloody organization located within the United States: the Nuestra Familia gang, which runs criminal activities and murders opponents throughout the western states. Despite the geographical difference, the gang’s predatory recruitment tactics sound a lot like ISIS’s method of appealing to disaffected young adults. As I wrote in my review:

Nuesta Familia seduces boys from broken homes with visions of cash, excitement and eternal brotherhood. Then it manipulates their ethics with double talk that suggests robbery, extortion, and drug dealing are merely types of “work” that serve the noble “Cause” of protecting their communities.

ISIS, El-Naggar and Goodstein show, successfully attracts young men from intact families partly because the society around them feels so broken. It replaces chaos with a sense of purpose, order, and brotherhood — all backed up by a violent and radically conservative interpretation of Islam. Nuestra Familia cunningly deploys a similar co-optation of an established, and generally peaceful, intellectual framework. Its original members

Pirated the civil rights language from César Chávez’s workers’ movement, which has nothing to do with the gang. Yet the sneaky co-optation works. Teenagers who are hungry for accomplishment swallow the rhetoric whole, and through this cunning lens see NF membership – with its daily grind of dealing, intimidation, and assault – as a kind of chivalric code.

That ethical bait-and-switch sounds dispiritingly familiar, no matter where it takes place.

Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel Prize-winning explorer of myth and reality, dies at 87

By Marcela Valdes
The Washington Post. Page One. April 17, 2014.

Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer who immersed the world in the powerful currents of magic realism, creating a literary style that blended reality, myth, love and loss in a series of emotionally rich novels that made him one of the most revered and influential writers of the 20th century, died April 17 at his home in Mexico City. He was 87.

The Associated Press reported his death. In July 2012, his brother Jaime García Márquez announced that the author had dementia.

Mr. García Márquez, who was affectionately known throughout Latin America as “Gabo,” was a journalist, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, memoirist and student of political history and modernist literature. Through the strength of his writing, he became a cultural icon who commanded a vast public following and who sometimes drew fire for his unwavering support of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

In his novels, novellas and short stories, Mr. García Márquez addressed the themes of love, loneliness, death and power. Critics generally rank “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967), “The Autumn of the Patriarch” (1975) and “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1985) as his masterpieces.

“The world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers — and one of my favorites from the time I was young,” President Obama said in a statement, calling the author “a representative and voice for the people of the Americas.”

Mr. García Márquez established his reputation with “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” an epic novel about multiple generations of the Buendía family in the fantastical town of Macondo, a lush settlement based on the author’s birthplace on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The novel explored social, economic and political ideas in a way that captured the experience of an entire continent, but it also included supernatural elements, such as a scene in which a young woman ascends to heaven while folding the family sheets.

By fusing two seemingly disparate literary traditions — the realist and the fabulist — Mr. García Márquez advanced a dynamic literary form, magic realism, that seemed to capture both the mysterious and the mundane qualities of life in a decaying South American city. For many writers and readers, it opened up a new way of understanding their countries and themselves.

In awarding Mr. García Márquez the literature prize in 1982, the Nobel committee said he had created “a cosmos in which the human heart and the combined forces of history, time and again, burst the bounds of chaos.”

“One Hundred Years of Solitude” has been translated into more than 35 languages and has sold, by some accounts, more than 50 million copies. The Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda described the book as “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since the Don Quixote of Cervantes.”

Mr. García Márquez parlayed his literary triumphs into political influence, befriending international dignitaries such as President Bill Clinton and François Mitterrand, the late president of France. The celebration for Mr. García Márquez’s 80th birthday was attended by five Colombian presidents and the king and queen of Spain.

Yet few knew the penury the author endured before achieving fame. “Everyone’s my friend since ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ ” Mr. García Márquez once told a brother, “but no one knows what it cost me to get there.”

Read the rest of this obituary at The Washington Post online

Benjamins or Bullets: How Mexico Became a Narco-Democracy

Photograph by  Anthony Suau. See his terrific series at:,29307,1827101,00.html

Photograph by Anthony Suau. See his terrific series on the drug war in Mexico at:,29307,1827101,00.html

“Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers” by Anabel Hernández
“The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail” by Óscar Martínez
Reviewed by Marcela Valdes
Columbia Journalism Review. November 1, 2013.

This is how it used to work: In the 1970s farmers would pay Mexican officials for permission to plant hectares of marijuana or poppy. “Once the fields had been sown,” an anonymous source tells Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández, “they stuck little colored flags on them, according to the arrangement. This meant that when the [government] helicopters flew over, instead of fumigating them they would water them.”

Drug traffickers also paid fees to store their harvest in warehouses, and again to smuggle the drugs over the border into the United States. Through such under-the-table “taxes,” which amounted to about $60 a kilo, the Mexican government fattened its coffers while controlling the production and movement of drugs within its borders.

Today the servant has become the master. Cartels dominate not only large portions of Mexico’s government, but also much of the country’s civil society. Their payroll includes not just army personnel, police officers, intelligence agents, prison guards, business owners, and politicians, but also soda vendors, tortilla sellers, and gas-station attendants. Under their rule, fear has reached legendary proportions throughout Mexico. A man in Ciudad Juárez tells journalist Óscar Martínez that he’s afraid to use public bathrooms because he doesn’t want to find decapitated heads. “It sounds at first like he’s paranoid, or crazy,” Martínez writes, “but it’s happened to him twice.”

How did the Mexican government lose control of its traffickers? An answer can be found in two new books: Hernández’s Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers and Martínez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Together they provide a top-down, bottom-up view of how Mexican cartels have consolidated and corporatized in the past two decades. As the cartels have integrated vertically, destroyed their competition, and diversified their interests, their business has grown more efficient—and so has their cruelty. In fact, a short version of Hernández’ book might run like this: Government officials thought they were training sheep; instead they were raising wolves.

Read the rest of this article at The Columbia Journalism Review online

A Literary History of Alice Munro

Like so many American readers, I was thrilled to hear the news that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize this week. I’ve been a fan of her short stories for decades, and back in 2006 I was lucky enough to spend about two months immersed in her work while I wrote this essay for The Virginia Quarterly Review:

Some Stories Have to Be Told by Me: A Literary History of Alice Munro

Sometime in the late 1970s, Alice Munro made a policy of refusing prizes that didn’t specifically honor the quality of her fiction. When the Canadian government offered her one of its highest honors in 1983—an appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada, which would have entitled her to a pretty, gold-edged medal with the mottoDesiderantes meliorem patriam (“They desire a better country”) emblazoned around a gold maple leaf—Munro politely declined. She didn’t feel comfortable, she said, with awards that celebrated celebrity. Only awards that had been earned by particular books or by particular groups of books were okay. Munro was fifty-two by then, and several such awards had already been placed, like love letters, upon her books…

Read the full essay at the Virginia Quarterly Review

What Terrifies Teens In Today’s Young Adult Novels? The Economy

by Marcela Valdes September 30, 2013.

The Hunger GamesDivergent

If you think kids are too young to worry about unemployment numbers, consider this: some of our most popular young adult novels fairly shiver with economic anxiety. Take Veronica Roth’s Divergent, this week’s top New York Times Young Adult bestseller and a perennial on the list since its publication in 2011. Divergent‘s heroine, Beatrice Prior, braves hazing, groping and punching in order to enter the militaristic “faction” that she admires. She endures these dangers willingly because in Roth’s dystopian, all-or-nothing Chicago, Beatrice would be thrown into the streets if she fails her initiation. There, among the ruined buildings and the reek of sewage, Beatrice would be forced to join Roth’s “factionless,” the working poor who perform the scutwork of Divergent‘s society. The prospect makes Beatrice cringe. For her and her peers, she explains, to be factionless is “our worst fear, greater even than the fear of death.”

Financial terror also motivates Suzanne Collin’s blockbuster novel The Hunger Games. In a world of predatory Capitol-ism, Katniss Everdeen and her family exist on the edge of starvation. Her most famous skills — hunting and foraging — are developed to keep her mother and sister alive. Economic desperation tinges even her romantic connections. Peeta first makes an impression when he throws Katniss two warm loaves of raisin nut bread. Gale meets her while poaching in the woods, and their friendship springs from one shared truth: “Gale and I agree that if we have to choose between dying of hunger and a bullet in the head, the bullet would be much quicker.”

Reading these books, I find it hard not to remember that The Hunger Games debuted in September 2008, the same month that Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. Or that the number of American children living in poverty jumped by more than three million in the four years preceding Divergent‘s 2011 publication. Financial stress in young adult novels may be nothing new: Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic Little Women opens with “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” But to me it seems clear that the economic anxieties keeping today’s adults awake at night — income inequality, food insecurity, downward mobility, winner-takes-all competition — have also invaded the literature of their children.

Read the full article at